I am so weird. In fact, if I wrote a list of all the ways I am weird, you’d be reading until January. And that list would only include the weirdness I recognize. Add to that list the things my husband and children find weird? You’d be reading until 2017.
As for you, my friend? You’re weird too. Maybe you’re not quite as weird as I, but let’s face it; you’re pretty weird. I know this because each and every one of us humans is weird. We all think weird thoughts and do weird stuff and like weird things. I know, I know. You didn’t know that I was weird. Or that Jay, the guy you work with, is living in some kind of fantasy world, believing he can re-win the affection of his one true love. Nor did you know that Anastasia, the woman who lives in the apartment above you, kind of likes it kinky. Or that Harry, the guy who works in the deli department, actually has a secret other life, one where he assumes the identity of a powerful wizard. You didn’t know any of that because humans are all quite good at concealing at least 90% of their weirdness, at least in public. I, for example, wouldn’t dance with my cat in public, cradling him like a big, fat, bad-breathed baby, while singing “Sweet Little Kitty Kitty Face,” a song I made up. No I wouldn’t. If I did, you might think I was weird.
But that’s just goofy-weird, right? What about our darker weirdnesses, the thoughts and fantasies and habits we conceal from 100% of the world, maybe even from ourselves? I understand why we are so worried about revealing our weirdness, but it makes me sad that we are. It also makes me grateful that we have fiction.
With fiction we can explore our true selves in the privacy of someone else’s–Jay’s or Anastasia’s or Harry’s–story. As we are privy to the darkness, failure, and moral ambiguity in the lives of fictional characters, we feel less isolated in our weirdness. Fiction normalizes weirdness. With a good piece of fiction, a reader reaches the end and thinks, Yes, this author has told the truth. He has told a truth about me. About something I thought no one else felt.
Via the blog Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, I came across one of the fabulous “School of Life” videos titled “What is Literature For?” It’s clever and funny and weird and true, and if you can locate an extra 4:51 in your day, I highly recommend watching it. If you don’t have time, here are some snippets in which the lovely, British-voiced narrator states,
We are all weirder than we are allowed to admit . . . [the best books] find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences in our inner lives. Writers give us maps to ourselves [when stories and characters] are described with an honesty that’s quite different from what ordinary conversation allows.
How true! Fiction is not governed by the rules and guidelines that dictate what is appropriate in our relationships, our public persona. There is a freedom in fictional worlds and in the lives of fictional characters that delights us because we can explore who we really are, the good, bad and weirdish.
Last week I went to see David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Those are lovely books, but I went to see him because he’s the author of Black Swan Green, one of my all-time favorite novels. I love David Mitchell. I mean, I really love him. Not because he has a charming English accent or is freakishly articulate and funny. I love him because he writes truth, a truth I can recognize, and I find myself attracted to anyone who dares do such a thing. The irony is that the narrator of Black Swan Green, the character I want to protect, care for and hang out with, is a 13-year-old boy. Weird, right? I have never been a 13-year-old boy, but one of my weirdnesses is that I am, at heart, a 13-year-old boy. I love poop jokes. I love saying something silly, then sticking my left hand in my right armpit and pumping my right arm up and down to make farting noises. I find no greater pleasure than when my 11-year-old son looks at me and says, “Mature, mom. Real mature.”
Reading Black Swan Green, a book set in the ’80s, made me feel at home in my 13-year-old-boy, raised-in-the-early-’80s heart. Is that weird? For sure. It’s weird that I can so effortlessly and willingly launch into a teen boy schtick. But it’s also true. I do love a novel that’s weird but true, perhaps because I am weird and true. Telling the truth can bulldozer those walls that separate one human from another. And that’s hot. That’s why I love David Mitchell.
Sometimes in my own fiction, I see weird scenes or recurring themes and images emerge. Part of me feels nervous about the weirdness I see play out in my fiction. The other part feels excited, fascinated, rebellious. So what do we writers do with this?
As we write, we don’t do anyone a favor by tempering our weirdness. We are writers because we have great imaginations, and great imaginations pull us far from the mundane, the ordinary, the predictable. We need to remember that weirdness, in this case, is synonymous with humanness, and when we share the truth of our humanness through our fiction, when we don’t allow our proper, socially acceptable side to censor our imagination, we are far more likely to connect with our dear, weirdish readers.
Try it. See what happens.
Your turn: Do you find yourself censoring or celebrating your weirdness as you write? When have you been surprised by weird themes or images that emerge in your work? And how about this: share the title of a book with which you have had an intense connection because of the “truth” of the characters.
Photo compliments of Flickr’s Hernan Kirsten.